The Upshot: Another challenging and rewarding LP from an overlooked American songwriter getting her due in Europe.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
Shannon Wright is precisely the kind of artist the Internet Age crushes underfoot—which is as much our cultural loss as it is her career’s. When Wright began her solo career in the late 90s after the break-up of her band Crowsdell, there were still viable record label homes for eclectic songwriters and performers; the good folks at Touch & Go/Quarterstick would likely still be championing her had not the bottom fallen out of the industry for them in 2008, a year after Wright’s fifth release (2007’s Let In the Light).
Now, nearly a decade and four more fantastic—and fantastically obscure—records later, Wright still releases indelible, soul-scouring music. Only she does it (this time) through a French label, and against the wash of Internet noise. She also releases it in an ever-declining U.S. music market where even hipster “indie” outlets are too busy covering pop music to review her LPs. More’s the pity, since Wright’s adventurousness grows more compelling as time goes by.
Witness her latest, Division, a haunting album recorded in Rome and Paris. The eight songs introduce sampling and glitchy beats to layers of Wurlitzer, Hammond and piano, pushing Wright into new sonic territory. But whether she’s coaxing balladry from a toy piano or wielding her Jazz Master like a cudgel, Wright remains a wholly distinctive songwriter of raw, excoriating honesty.
Her previous releases, 2014’s In Film Sound, harkened back to her Touch & Go era, where working with producer Steve Albini first pulled something primal from her guitar playing. But with the exception of the explosive, fuzzed-out riff on the fiery title-track on Division, Wright has tamped down the guitar attack in favor of a host of keyboards.
There’s no drop-off in intensity, though. Whether she’s whispering pleas for relief or howling away demons, Wright’s songs mainline into dread, confusion and division but emerge from their trials graced by beauty. Album highlight “The Thirst,” a swirling lullaby about obsession and self-delusion, is both tangibly desperate and transcendent—”It’s my thirst, the thirst for your hand, vast as the sea,” Wright cries, her looped vocals wrapping over each other like layers of a shroud. On “Iodine,” trebly guitar lines embroider sinister organ fills as Wright laments all our “bloody crimes” and concedes that “desire won’t release, won’t be tamed or let me be.” As with much of Wright’s music, the song become its own salve.
Elsewhere, Wright incorporates select electronic elements to strong effect. She sets her vocals in contrast to toy piano and radio static on the pleasingly disorienting “Seemingly,” and uses film samples and offbeat percussion against a piano motif to jack up the tension to creepy levels on “Soft Noise.” That track eventually cracks into one of the record’s few turbulent crescendos with the help of drummer Raphaël Séguinier and violist David Chalmin. “Lighthouse (Drag Us In),” closes the album on a suitably eerie ballad, as Wright’s impressionistic piano (think Satie) conjures ethereal specters that call us to our stormy doom in the song’s final minute.
If you’ve been following along in the post-Quarterstick era, Division probably slots closer to the semi-polished grandeur of 2009’s Honeybee Girl than it does the mercurial (also guitar-centric) Secret Blood (2010) or In Film Sound. It reads more experimental, as well. But it still captures the urgency that defines Wright’s incandescent live gigs, which are more ritual purging than rock show—the line between Wright the Performer and Wright the Songwriter is so thin as to show, ironically, no division at all. And the world, wired up or not, could always use less artifice and more honesty of that ilk. If only they could find it…
DOWNLOAD: “The Thirst,” “Accidental,” “Soft Noise,” “Iodine”